Ann Cotton

Founder and President, Camfed

United Kingdom

Ann Cotton is Founder and President of Camfed, an international non-profit organisation tackling poverty and inequality in sub-Saharan Africa by supporting girls to go to school and succeed, and empowering young women to step up as leaders of change. Camfed’s goal is to replace the existing cycle of poverty and inequality with a new cycle of empowerment and opportunity. The organisation’s unique approach is to not only support girls and young women through school, but also on to new lives as entrepreneurs and community leaders. To complete the “virtuous cycle”, graduating students become Cama alumnae, many of whom return to school to train and mentor new generations of students. More than 3 million children have already benefited from Camfed’s programmes in a network of 5,085 partner schools across Zimbabwe, Zambia, Ghana, Tanzania and Malawi. Camfed won the International Aid and Development Charity of the Year award in 2003. In 2014, Camfed was recognized by the OECD for best practice in taking development innovation to scale. 

For more than three decades, Ann Cotton has been focused on improving opportunity for children at the margins of education. She began her career in a London school by establishing one of the first centres for girls excluded from mainstream education. Cotton’s commitment to girls’ education in Africa began in 1991, when she went on a research trip to Zimbabwe to investigate why girls’ school enrolment in rural areas was so low. Contrary to the common assumption that families weren’t sending girls to school for cultural reasons, Cotton discovered that poverty was the main roadblock. Families couldn’t afford to buy books or pay school fees for all their children. Instead, they had to choose which children would receive an education. Since boys had a better chance of getting a paid job after graduation, daughters were rarely selected. Cotton knew that educated girls were less likely to contract HIV/AIDS, would marry later, have fewer and healthier children, and would support the next generation to go to school. She understood that poverty and exclusion affects girls both psychologically and economically, and if girls could be educated, supported by their communities, and empowered to shape their own destinies, they could change their communities and nations forever. In 1993, after grassroots fundraising that supported the first 32 girls through school in Zimbabwe, Cotton founded Camfed. The reach of the organisation’s innovative education programs has grown ever since. In 2013 alone, Camfed directly supported over 434,000 children to go to school. 

One of the most effective and innovative results of Camfed’s work is Cama, a unique, 24,436-member strong pan-African network of Camfed graduates. Cama alumnae use their experience and expertise to design and deliver extended programs to students and communities, including health and financial literacy training. Each Cama member supports the education of another two to three children outside of her own family, multiplying the benefits of her education, and testifying to the programs’ effectiveness and sustainability. Over Camfed’s two decades, this approach has been proven to work both within rural communities and at a larger scale across countries. 

Ann Cotton is an Honorary Fellow at Homerton College, and Social Entrepreneur in Residence at the Cambridge University Judge Business School. She is a noted speaker on international platforms, including the World Economic Forum, the Clinton Global Initiative and the Skoll World Forum. She recently addressed the U.S.-Africa Summit hosted by the White House, George W. Bush Institute and U.S. State Department. Cotton has won numerous awards for her work, including an Honorary Doctorate in Law from Cambridge University; an OBE in honour of her advocacy of girls’ education in Africa; the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship; Woman of the Year in the UK; and UK Social Entrepreneur of the Year.